[ASH] ASH #59 - Ox-Body Technique

Dave Van Domelen dvandom at haven.eyrie.org
Mon May 30 13:16:59 PDT 2005

    //||  //^^\\  ||   ||   .|.   COHERENT COMICS UNINCORPORATED PRESENTS
   // ||  \\      ||   ||  --X---------------------------------------------
  //======================= '|`        ACADEMY OF SUPER-HEROES #59
 //   ||      \\  ||   ||                   Ox-Body Technique
//    ||  \\__//  ||   ||          Copyright 2005 by Dave Van Domelen

     [cover is an homage to the famous scene of the protester in front
      of the line of tanks in Tiananmen Square.  Breaker is in the role
      of the protester, while the tanks have been replaced by a line of
      rather large oxen.]

                       ACADEMY OF SUPER-HEROES ROLL CALL

CODENAME       REAL NAME                POWERS                   STATUS
--------       ---------                ------                   ------
Solar Max      Jonathan Zachary         Spacetime Control        ACTIVE
                 "JakZak" Taylor
Comet          Sarah Grant-Taylor       Superspeed, Ice Body     ACTIVE
Green Knight   Salvatore Napier         Strength, Regeneration   ACTIVE
Contact        Aaron Zander             Psi, Mind-over-Body      ACTIVE
Scorch         Scott Handleman          Pyrokinetic              ACTIVE
Beacon         George Sylvester         Living Light             ACTIVE
Essay          Sara Ana Rodriguez       Gadgeteer                ACTIVE
Peregryn       Howard Henderson Jr.     Elemental Mage           MISSING
Lightfoot      Tom Dodson               Velocity Control         RESERVE
Breaker        Christina Li             Telekinesis              ACTIVE
Fury           Arin Kelsey              Concussion Blasts        ACTIVE

[November 24, 2025 - Chang'an, People's Republic of China]

     Everything old is new again, Tina thought as she walked down the streets
of China's new capital city, which was also its ancient capital at one
point.  She was glad her cover identity was that of a country bumpkin refugee
in the big city, since it was almost impossible to resist the urge to goggle
like a tourist.
     What was the word...ah, right.  Chinoiserie.  A hundred years ago or so
there was a fad to take European-style buildings and add Chinese decorative
bits and pieces to them.  It got so tacky that the term "chintzy" came from
     But Chang'an seemed to know how to merge the styles much more
organically.  These were more than just Communist-Era concrete blocks with
some pagoda-frills.  Entire exteriors had been reworked to make the buildings
look like they had been created in the Ming Dynasty or even earlier.  While
the "breakaways" were uneasily blending the 20th and 21st Centuries, the
People's Republic was rolling back the calendar, and doing it pretty well.
     Oh, there were still televisions and the occasionally visible wiring and
so forth, and the lighting was electric rather than oil.  China wasn't
abandoning technology, it was too big and had too many enemies to risk that.
But they were certainly going to great lengths to create the illusion of a
retreat into the medieval past.
     The smells wafting from a nearby restaurant reminded her she hadn't
eaten lunch yet...and also reminded her yet again that for the first time in
years, she'd missed Thanksgiving with her parents.  She'd been able to give
them a call from the Guam base, but that was no substitute.
     Tina resolved to solve this mystery and be home for Christmas.
     She ignored that little part of her mind that suggested she might be
*dead* by Christmas.

               *              *              *              *

[November 24, 2025 - Milwaukee, Wisconsin Sector]

     Milwaukee had undergone a lot of changes in the past generation, as most
cities had.  It wasn't a shell of its former self, like New York, but it
hadn't been a huge metropolis to begin with anyway.
     One thing that hadn't changed was the yeasty smell that covered a big
part of town, near the so-called "Miller Valley".  
     Nancy Balzer's house was just close enough that if the wind was right
she caught a whiff of the beery scent, and it was warm enough thanks to a
late Indian Summer that she'd left the windows open a crack to get some
"fresh" air.
     It was the change in odor that woke the Anchor nurse up just enough to
notice something wrong in Chris's crib.  
     Suddenly fully awake, she jumped over to the crib where her foster son
slept fitfully...and aged rapidly.
     "Christopher!" she gasped, concentrating to bring the full effect of her
paranormal-power-dampening ability to bear.  Born with time-control powers he
couldn't turn off, Christopher Kelsey had come to live with Nancy because
only the constant presence of an Anchor could keep him from dying of old age.
     As she picked Chris up and rocked him back to sleep in her arms, Nancy
realized that one of her worst fears had come to pass.  Her presence alone
was no longer enough to keep the baby safe from himself.
     Careful not to jar the child she had come to think of as her own, Nancy
sat down at the small computer console near her bed and started typing an
urgent message with her free hand.

               *              *              *              *

[November 26, 2025 - Chang'an, PRoC]

     Brush held firmly but gently, Tina assembled the elegant grass-style
characters that made up her answer to the third question.  That she was
pressing the brush against a computer screen instead of on rice paper was
just another way in which the current administration made concessions to the
present while maintining the forms of the past.
     Keyboards existed for standardized Chinese, but they were inelegant
affairs, and a stylus was far better.  Someone had been very clever to create
a physical brush that created on the screen what would be made in ink on
paper.  Likely an artist made the original, but China had enthusiastically
adopted the brush for computer operation.
     A telepathically-implanted crash course let her write in the more
archaic Chinese that had been adopted by the government in recent years, but
she still relied on habits picked up as a child.  Don't think of it as
writing, think of it as painting a picture.  It is more important in these
revived "eight legged" tests to have beautiful calligraphy than it was to
answer the questions quickly.
     She paused to rest her hand, and looked ahead to the fourth item.  She
had no clue what the accepted answer was, despite another telepathic cram
course on the subject material.  
     No matter.  She only had to get a good enough score to get in the door
and see if her hunches were right.  That there was a reason for this return
to the past beyond someone thinking it'd be good propaganda.  And a pile of
beautifully painted ox dung would do that job well enough....

               *              *              *              *

[November 27, 2025 - Milwaukee, Wisconsin Sector]

     Arin fidgeted as the private jet slowly taxied towards the end of the
terminal reserved for smaller planes.  She'd been making better time than a
private citizen would have, thanks to her ASH status, but since it was a
purely personal affair she hadn't been able to commandeer a sub-orbital or
anything else *really* fast.
     Dreyfus Memorial Hospital was only a few more minutes away after she
cleared the gate, but every minute felt like a year.  And for Christopher, it
could BE a year, for all she knew.
     "Don't panic," she muttered to herself.  "They'd have called if anything
else happened."
     "Did you say something, ma'am?" the driver asked while they waited for
the light to turn green.  Dreyfus was within sight.
     "It's green," Arin snapped, instantly regretting it.  The driver hadn't
done anything to deserve her irritated tone.
     When she looked back on the day later, the whole trip across town, the
wait at the admissions desk, the slow and measured walk to Pediatrics...
they would all seem like a blurr.  Not like the eternity they felt like at
the time.
     "Is he..." she blurted out as she entered the private room.
     "Your son is still stable," a doctor in the usual scrubs and coat
replied.  "Ms. Balzer is resting in the next room, she's had to be awake
quite a bit the past few days, but Christopher is in deep sleep and should
stay that way for at least a few minutes."
     Arin carefully edged up to the bed, trying not to wake her baby.
     But he wasn't a baby anymore.  Sporting a full head of fiery red hair,
he had to be a toddler now, or even older.  She'd been told about this, but
to see it...Arin felt an ache in her heart.  She didn't even recognize her
own son.  She knew this would happen eventually, she freely gave him into
Nancy's foster care, but it was still a shock.
     The doctor gestured for her to follow him into the hallway, and she
     "Ms. Kelsey, physically your son is fine, as I told you over the phone.
He apparently no longer needs to eat at an accelerated rate during these
growth spurts as he did while in utero, so there's no danger he'll starve to
death in the blink of an eye."
     Arin let out the breath she'd been holding since she looked at her son.
"But?  There's a 'but', right?"
     The doctor nodded.  "But he's still physically developing in a normal
way, which means he's already missed much of his prime learning time, while
the brain is still very flexible and making new connections at a greater rate
than it will later in life.  There is a distinct danger he will overshoot
important stages in development, and be unable to do things like learn
language or basic socialization.  In short, he could become feral."
     "Can't a telepath fix that?"
     "Yes, and we've put in a request to MetaPsych for help.  But keep in
mind, he can't be Anchored *and* telepathically instructed at the same time.
And there's already been some irreparable harm caused to his social
development.  His foster mother has done as good a job as anyone could hope
to, but every time he jumps forward it's as if he spends hours, days or even
months utterly alone.  That is going to have psychological consequences, no
matter what we do."
     Arin shivered, knowing what it was like to be totally alone inside
oneself.  She wouldn't wish that on an enemy, and certainly not her own son,
regardless of the sins of his father.
     "Josh," she whispered.  "How far will your madness go, how much will it

               *              *              *              *

[November 28, 2025 - Lhasa, Tibet, CAC]

     It's a funny thing about expectations.  If someone expects that you will
or won't do something, they're often utterly blind to what happens when you
go against their expectations.  Especially if you're playing a double- or
triple-reverse game.
     Grind had a reputation for being a super spy, so one might expect him to
be trying to dig up information even on his supposed allies.  However, he was
a celebrity guest of the Central Asian Confederation, and everyone knew his
reputation.  So one would expect he would be on his best behavior, as all
eyes would be on him.  Which meant that if he *did* snoop around, people
would dismiss the possibility of him spying, because no one would be that
stupid, right?
     Obviously, you could go into multiple "I know you know I know you know
that's the case" layers, but few people did that outside of joking about it.
     Therefore, Grind had been able to do an awful lot of snooping, both
electronic and old-fashioned chatting up people for information, without
anyone calling him on it.
     Now he was in a disused records room, on a terminal that had rather high
security access that no one had remembered to revoke, and was finding out all
sorts of interesting things.  Like how the Western Dragon didn't have a birth
record on file, even in the secret and highly restricted files.
     So, either she was hiding that information from even her closest allies,
or even she didn't know.  If the first, how small was the cadre of people she
actually trusted, if it existed at all?  If the second...well, that raised
all sorts of questions.
     Grind heard the sound of the door opening.  Nowhere good to hide, best
to play it "dumb".
     "Mister Tracey," one of a pair of security guards said firmly.  "The
Western Dragon would like to talk to you.  In private."
     "Of course, let me just..."
     He was cut off.  "Now."
     Two guards, he could probably take them easily.  But he had to think in
diplomatic terms now.  "Fine," he replied, keying the macro he'd set up to
wipe all traces of his actions in the system.  Not that it was likely to
help, but good tradecraft is good tradecraft.

               *              *              *              *

[November 30, 2025 - Chang'an, PRoC]

     "Hello, Miss Li, if you will follow me?" the clerk gestured to her as
she sat among the hundreds of people waiting for the results of their own
civil service exams.  She'd kept her family name...it was certainly common
enough, and guaranteed she wouldn't forget to respond to a cover name...and
she didn't plan to get familiar enough with anyone here to be addressed
solely by her false personal name of Tianlin 2154.
     As they walked, the clerk spoke in a matter-of-fact tone, with just a
hint of a sing-song that suggested he was rattling off a script.  "As you are
probably aware, Miss Li, Premier Niu has generously extended his hand of
patronage to refugees such as yourself, who fled the traitorous rebels of
Xinjiang Province.  As such, your assignment will be of a slightly greater
prestige and honor than your exam scores would normally allow.  You are
expected to repay the Premier's trust in you by proving yourself to be worthy
of the position.  You will be allowed to retake the exams in six months'
time, and if your scores have improved, you will not be demoted."
     "I am grateful for this boon the Premier has extended to me," Tina
replied, bowing her head as she walked.  In fact, she hadn't known about any
such special treatment being given to those from Xinjiang, although it made a
certain amount of sense.  Still, while it was nice to be getting a break, she
was worried that Grind hadn't contacted her this morning.  What if this was
all a trap, and he'd already sprung his side?
     The clerk stopped, and Tina was careful not to stop too close to him.
"You will be working in this office, helping transcribe old documents from
ugly machine type into proper calligraphy.  Your exams indicated that this
was your strong point," he added in a slightly condescending tone.
     Tina nodded, the gratitude on her face not faked at all.  She was in the
main government building.  She would get to see the sorts of things the
government felt needed to be re-stated.  That was close enough to the center
that she should be able to put some flesh on the skeleton of a theory she and
Grind had worked out.
     Now, hopefully her own flesh would stay on its skeleton long enough to
figure things out.

               *              *              *              *

[December 1, 2025 - Montreal, Venus]

     Carlito Piazza plucked ears of corn and stuffed them into his bag, just
as the guy to his right and the gal to his left did.  One day was much the
same as another in the "glorious" city of Montreal.
     Except...it wasn't.  Maybe.  Rumors had been going around that things
were changing outside the dome.  The Sans Rouge pigs had been denying this,
of course, and punishing anyone they caught spreading the rumors.  Nothing
harsh, just a reduced ration for a day or two, but enough to show they cared.
     Pluck, stuff.  Pluck, stuff.
     "Hey, what's that?" the guy to his right said, pointing to the east.
     Carlito looked to the eternal orange-brown haze that made up the sky.
"What...?  Wait, I think I...is it losing color?"
     And then, like a set of blinds had been opened, the hazy orange sky
*snapped* to a new color.
     The honest gray of stormclouds.
     Nagged by intuition, Carlito whirled around to look to the southwest,
where the edge of the dome was visible, where the linked Viaus held in the
water of the river.
     He could see land beyond the water's edge, rather than just the haze.
     Then the rain started to fall on the dome and the land around, and the
view was obscured again.
     Carlito didn't even realize for a few seconds that he was cheering along
with everyone else.

               *              *              *              *

[December 1, 2025 - Unknown location in Tibet]

     "So, Mister Tracey, what have you found out about me in your time as a
guest of the Confederation?" the Western Dragon purred, seated behind a jade-
surfaced desk.  Dan was in a well-made office chair facing her, with no
visible security presence.  
     Not that he was naive enough to think he could make it across the desk
to her without being stopped in half a dozen ways, should he be stupid enough
to try.
     "Nothing, as you must know already.  Which is itself something," he
calmly replied.  He felt like opening up to the leader of the CAC, but he
knew that feeling came from outside himself.
     "True, true," she nodded.  "I do like my privacy, what little I can get
as such a public figure.  But surely you must have some theories?"
     "Of course."
     "Would you care to share them with me?"
     Grind paused.  The urge to tell all was strong now, but the defenses he
had in place against people like Mr. Strings were at least partially
effective in this case.  "No, not really," he finally said.
     She frowned.  She was good at covering it, but Grind caught a hint of
pique in that frown.  The Western Dragon was used to getting what she wanted
from people, her paranormal charisma bending them to her will.
     "Do you think I'm a puppet of the Chinese?" she asked suddenly,
increasing the pressure as if hoping to get him to blurt out an answer.  He
held his tongue, but he must have given some sign in his expression, because
she smiled.  "No, you don't, do you?  Maybe you did at some point, but you've
clearly learned enough to see through that layer of the charade.  But you
wouldn't have kept digging if you took me at face value, either, would you?
No, you may have a tendency towards the obsessive, but you know when effort
is wasted."
     There was a long and uneasy silence as the two merely stared into each
other's eyes.
     Finally, the Western Dragon sighed and looked away.  "You aren't going
to stop until you find the truth, I can tell that much.  I could kill you,
but that would cause more problems than it solves.  And don't mistake me, I
*can* kill you if I want...I am more than I appear to be, even more than you
think I am.  I can't charm you into being on my side, so I suppose there's
only one serious option left.
     "The truth."  She stepped back from the desk, and concentrated.
     Dan's eyes widened in surprise.  She *was* more than he'd expected, and
he'd been expecting quite a bit....

               *              *              *              *

[December 1, 2025 - Chang'an, PRoC]

     Tina was getting worried.  Dan hadn't checked in today either, and she
couldn't go asking around for him without risk to her cover.  The system of
innocuous emails to dummy drops that they were using was safe for simple
messages, but no more.
     Nothing to do but go on with her job, then. 
     She hadn't done any actual work yet, she was still getting familiar with
her duties and the equipment.  From what she saw on the desks of her
coworkers, though, it looked like the government was starting to slowly
introduce the idea that an emperor might be a good idea again.  Not really
surprising, but good to have confirmed.
     A message popped up on her computer.  "Please report to the supervisor's
office, Miss Li," the elegant characters read.  She nodded, putting the
computer on standby.  She'd been told to expect a meeting with her immediate
superior some time today, when his schedule allowed for it.  Strangely
spontaneous for such a formal bureaucracy, but she'd been told that current
personnel issues forced most management to cover multiple departments.
     Given that much of the government's management structure had turned into
free-floating atoms back in '23, this wasn't really that surprising.
     A short walk down the hall took her to the unassuming office of her
supervisor, whose name she hadn't even learned yet.  There was no name on the
door either, it seemed to be more of a temporary office space for visiting
officials.  Horray for part-time bosses.
     She knocked.  "Transcriber Li to see the supervisor?" she spoke into the
small intercom box next to the door.
     "Come in," a deep and resonant voice replied.
     Tina opened the door and stepped inside.  The door closed smoothly and
quietly behind her on its own.  Inside the modest office was a fairly
standard set of office furniture: simple desk and chair, two chairs for
visitors, a computer, a small lockable cabinet, a coatrack.  And a man who
looked like he could have carried all of the furniture on his back, despite
his age.
     Premier Niu.
     "Please, have a seat, Miss Li.  Or would you rather I call you Breaker?"
he gestured at the empty chairs next to the desk.
     So much for all that work that went into building a cover identity, Tina
sighed to herself.
     "I expect you're wondering how I knew who you were?" Niu chuckled as
Tina sat down and he followed suit.  "Your people did a very good job
inserting you, you will have to give them my regards.  But I was expecting
you to come to Chang'an eventually.  When the opposition knows you are
coming, it is nearly impossible to stay hidden for long."
     "True.  So...what now?" Tina replied.
     Niu shrugged, his massive shoulders turning the simple gesture into
something more dramatic.  "You are a spy, and I would be within my legal
rights to have you executed.  But you have not discovered anything of
consequence, and you did help save the world on at least one occasion, which
I believe should be counted in your favor.  I suppose I could simply throw
you back, as you are but a small fish in the world of espionage.  Perhaps
someone in your government would decide they owed me a favor.
     "Of course, you are clearly determined to find something specific,
aren't you?  You're not really spy material in general, and I'm sure your
government would never have sent you on a simple fishing expedition.  You are
far more useful as a publicity tool.  But you are a supernormal, and I expect
you could cause a great deal of damage if I simply sent you away with your
curiosity undimmed."
     Niu sighed as Tina simply met his gaze silently.  "Unfortunately for me,
this dilemma has most likely become moot.  My spies in the Dragon's court
suggest that your ally has likely uncovered our great game already.  Better
to make sure you know the whole truth before I let you go, or you might do
even more damage."
     "Game?" Tina blinked.
     "All of politics is a game, Miss Li.  Some of us are simply more honest
with ourselves on that score.  And I will now be honest with you...."


Next Issue:

     The Romance of Three Republics comes to a (hopefully) shocking end as
"The Truth Comes Out"!


Author's Notes:

     The title is taken from a "charm" in the Exalted RPG, a very common one
everyone's recommended to take.  I picked it pretty much because it was the
first thing that came to mind as a tie to Premier Niu ("Ox").  Although there
are subtler meanings that ended up working into the story.  Or maybe I'm just
bluffing about that.

     Yes, the May 4 episode of Smallville with the rapidly aging kid did make
me think of Chris Kelsey's situation and decide to pick up his plot thread
again.  :)  And I'm sure some readers will note possible Bart Allen parallels
as well.

     The "eight-legged" tests dominated the civil service of China for in
Ming and Qing (Manchu) eras before the forcible modernization brought by the
20th Century.  They were called by that name because they were composed of
eight sections that tested the applicant on their ability to memorize the
Confucian classics.  The 2025 version relies less on rote memorization of
Analects, but still retains the form and style of the classic exams.  I
suppose Mao's sayings enter into it as well.

     If this were a regular comic, the final two scenes would have happened
in parallel, with each page split in half and the two scenes running on top
and bottom.  But doing that in text is far too annoying to make the gimmick
worthwhile.  I suppose I could have tried two columns, but anyone reading in
a proportional font would be out of luck.  And editing would have been a
royal pain.  

     And now for a teaser.  I'm thinking of naming the next arc "Time And


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